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Spring 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 1 · pp. 37–46 

Megatrends in Missions

Paul G. Hiebert

In missions, as in many other areas of life, we look to the future but plan according to the past. This is not surprising for we have only the past to learn from by experience. Yet change is now so rapid that past experience is no longer sufficient to help us plan for the future. We need to know as best we can where the world is headed. Obviously we cannot predict the future or the time of the Lord’s return, nor should planning replace our seeking God’s guidance in missions. But we must try to understand the times, and some of the global trends that will profoundly change the shape of Christian missions are already clear.

megatrends . . . warnings against triumphalism . . . exploding world of opportunities.


During the week of July 4, 1986, while U.S. citizens were celebrating their bicentennial, according to U.N. estimates the world population quietly passed the five billion mark. When William Carey left for India in 1800 A.D., the world had less than one billion people. It took roughly one hundred years (1830-1930) for it to add a second billion, thirty years {38} (1930-1960) to add a third billion, fifteen years (1960-1975) to add a fourth billion, and eleven to add the fifth billion. Another billion and more will be added by the end of the century. It is estimated that the population will plateau sometime in the next century or two at between eleven to thirteen billion.

This means that the task of modern missions is as great as it has ever been. There are more non-Christians who have not heard the Gospel sufficiently to make a meaningful decision than at the time of William Carey. Furthermore, much of the most rapid population growth is taking place in populations where the church is least represented.

To compound the problem, the most rapid growth is taking place in the countries that can least afford more people (Hadaway and Rose 1984). Currently, 92 percent of the world’s population increase is occurring in the “developing” countries that are already plagued by poverty and underemployment. In Asia and Latin America roughly one half of the present population is under fifteen years of age. In many countries the number of jobs, homes and other basic human needs will have to double in the next two decades in order to care for those who are already born.


Five centuries ago when the age of exploration began, the world was full of societies unaware of each other’s existence. Two hundred years ago large regions of the world remained unmapped. Today it is easier and faster to travel around the world than it was for our forefathers a century ago to cross Canada or the United States. The world has become one vast network of relationships in which few live unaffected by what is happening on other parts of the globe.

This globalization has made it possible for missionaries to travel to remote regions of the world, for broadcasting stations to beam radio and TV programs into lands closed to the Gospel, and for Christian lay men and women to witness to associates in other countries. It also calls for all Christians to think in global terms—to identify themselves less with nations and more with the people of the whole world.

Another type of globalization has also occurred. Today the church is international. No longer is the West the center of {39} Christianity (Table 1). There are centers in many parts of the world. By the end of this century Barrett estimates that the largest number of Christians on any continent will be in Africa. Large churches have also arisen in Latin America, China and North India.

Table 1

  Percent of world Christian Percent of church white
1800 23.1 86.5
1900 34.4 81.1
1980 32.8 50.5
2000 (est) 32.3 39.8

The globalization of the church calls for cooperative mission programs in which churches in different lands form partnerships in outreach. It calls for multinational mission teams that are identified less with any one country. And it calls for cooperation between churches in different lands in building one another in faith and life.

One result of this world-wide spread of the church has been the rapid increase in the number of nonwestern missionaries as young churches catch the vision of missions. In 1980 A.D. the number of missionaries sent out by churches in Asia was estimated to be 4,980. By 1985 A.D. this number had grown to 10,210. In 1990 A.D. the figure could rise to 20,000 (Pate 1). An equal number of missionaries is being sent out by Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. By the end of the century the number of missionaries sent by two-thirds world churches will probably equal or exceed those sent by the West. Many of these missionaries will go to people in other cultures in their own or neighboring countries. Others, however, will go to other parts of the world and to regions where western missionaries are not permitted to enter.


One consequence of globalization is pluralism—different cultures now live as next door neighbors. For example, Los Angeles has large populations of Mexicans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Arabs, Iranians, Armenians, Israelis, Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Burmese, Indians and Samoans. {40} In its public school system classes are taught in 67 languages. Forty percent of the kindergarten students in Beverly Hills study English as a second language. Most speak Farsi (from Iran) as their primary language. The same is true in other parts of the world. In Africa peoples of many tribes mix in the cities; in India migrants from different linguistic regions work in the same offices.

We also face pluralism in religions. At the beginning of this century Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs lived in distant lands. Today the Regent’s Park Mosque is one of the most beautiful worship centers built in London in the past quarter century. In nearby Brent Muslims pray in what was once a Reformed Church building, and in east London they use an old synagogue. Hindu temples complete with idols are being built in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and other western cities.

What does all this mean? Racial and cultural clashes are common around the world as local communities are invaded by outsiders. And deep intergenerational tensions emerge as children of migrants reject the ways of their parents. Here the church has a great opportunity in ministries of reconciliation and peace. As Mortimer Arius points out (1982), the primary method of evangelism in the Old Testament was hospitality. God’s people were to show his character by caring for the stranger and the marginal.

A more fundamental question has to do with peaceful coexistence. How can people of such different cultures and religions live together in the same communities? The easy answer is to leave one another alone, but what then holds them together in one city and nation? And what about evangelism? To permit it invites conflicts, but to reject it is to reject Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all people. The greatest danger of pluralism is a relativism that denies the uniqueness of the Gospel.

Pluralism also provides us with great opportunities. In 1970 A.D. we had to send a missionary to Laos to evangelize the Mien. Today many of them live in Fresno, Visalia and San Jose, a fifteen minute drive from our churches. The same is true of many other people who have settled in Canada and the U.S. The mission fields of the world have come to our doors. {41}


The world is rapidly becoming not a global village but a global city. We are living in the middle of the greatest exodus the earth has ever seen as people around the world move from fields and villages to exploding urban centers. An estimated one billion people will migrate to cities in the 1980’s alone. In 1900 A.D. only 5.5% of the world’s population live in cities with populations over 100,000 people. By 2000 A.D. this will have risen to 38%, and by 2050 A.D. to more than 75%. In 1900 A.D. there were no cities with five million inhabitants. By 2000 A.D. there will be 65 of them, and 24 of these will have more than ten million. More than 430 will have more than one million people in them!

In the past urbanization characterized the West. Today it is occurring most rapidly in the two-thirds world (see Table 2).

Table 2
(in millions)

  1950 1985 2020
Two-thirds World 332 1,256 3,606
Western World* 404 757 1,048
* (N. Am, USSR, Europe, Australia, New Zealand)

Mexico City is growing at a rate of 80,000 per month, and by the year 2000 A.D. it will be the largest city in the world with 31 million people in it. In 1900 A.D. nine out of the top ten cities were in the so-called Christian West, with New York at the top. In 2000 A.D. New York will be the only western city in the top ten, and it will be number seven. By 2030 A.D., no western city will be in the top ten cities of the world. Seven of them will be in Asia, two in Latin America, and one (Mexico City) in North America. The settings for most of these cities will be the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim worlds.

Along with urbanization goes networking. The cities of the world are linked to each other by planes, ships, mail, telecommunications, telephones, computers and satellite communications. What happens in one affects the other almost instantly.

The cities provide us with a great many mission opportunities. The people are around us on every side. By winning them {42} to Christ in one city we can reach others around the world.


If one looks at the world scene from a missionary point of view, one striking fact is that in great areas of Asia and Africa the church is growing (often rapidly) while in lands once called Christendom it is declining under the attack of modernity. Wherever modernity penetrates, it carries with it the “acids of modernity” that dissolve the most enduring of religious beliefs, including those of Christians.

The spread of modernity is one of the greatest missionary movements of our age. In the past decades schools have appeared in the remotest of villages, and children around the world are learning a science, mathematics, and history divorced from a faith in God. Universities, hospitals and research laboratories have become the status symbols of nationhood.

As Newbigin points out, modernity is both a blessing and a curse for missions. It breaks the tight hold traditional religions have upon their people and therefore frees them to convert to Christianity. On the other hand, in its present form it erodes belief in all religions including Christianity. In country after country where the Gospel has taken root, Christians have become secularized and nominal by the third and fourth generation. Even if Christian missions are totally successful, there is a real danger that the world will end not with a living church but with nominal Christianity. Modernity as we know it opens the doors for Christian missions, but is itself a threat to the Gospel.

It is not surprising, therefore that most major religions have experienced a revival of religious fundamentalism. Today fundamentalist movements in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are resisting the spread of modernity and of Christianity (which they see as the bearer of modernity) and are seeking to revive old religious ways and draw Christian converts back into their folds. Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist countries are also closing their doors to Christian missionaries. According to one estimate, eighty percent of the world’s countries will be closed to outside missionaries by the end of this century. Christian missions must, therefore, find other ways to {43} evangelize these lands and prepare young churches in these lands to stand amidst persecution.

Modernity has so penetrated the world views of Europe and North America that many Christians in the two-thirds world are beginning to ask whether the West can be converted (Newbigin). In the last century the growing materialism of science and the radical critique of metaphysical foundations by western philosophy have created a post-Christian culture that is particularly resistant to the Gospel. Western Christianity itself has lost its prophetic voice and largely bought into the values and goals of a secularist culture.

Here, too, a reaction is setting in. Even as the two-thirds world becomes increasingly modern, the West is moving into a post-modern era. Disillusioned with science and modernity, Europeans and North Americans, including many Christians, are turning in large numbers to the many new religious movements loosely united in what is called the New Age. Rooted essentially in Hindu and Buddhist epistemologies, these provide certainty and self-realization by turning inward into the person. Today, as the Church in the West looks to mission fields abroad, it itself has become the mission field for other religions. No longer is Christianity the only or even the major missionary force in the world today.


The internationalization of the world has led to global confrontations between greater powers, between lesser powers, and between old tribes and new nations. The result has been a growing geopolitical instability. We live in an age of violence that has made mission work more difficult in many ways, not the least of which (for us) is the way others increasingly identify the U.S. with militarism and imperialism.

Wally Kroeker notes that between 1900 A.D. and 1941 A.D. an estimated 24 international and civil wars occurred. The number since World War II had risen to 130 by the late 1970s (Kroeker 5). Senator Mark Hatfield pointed out that in 1983 A.D. 40 little wars were being waged throughout the world involving some four million soldiers. The cost was $700 billion ($140 for every person on earth), 17 million refugees, and countless lives (Kroeker 3). The dollar figure equals the total income of the poorest one half of the world. It amounts to {44} twice the amount the world spent on food, and five times the amount spent on housing, and 2,300 times the amount spent working for peace.

This violence has led to a sharp rise in terrorism. Missionaries in South and Central America, the Philippines, and Africa have been held hostage or killed. Others have left their work for fear of reprisals. And behind this violence looms the threat of nuclear war, a very real threat that increasingly terrorizes the young.

Alongside this geopolitical instability is an emerging economic crisis of profound proportions. The gulf between rich and poor nations and between rich and poor within the nations has increased dramatically in the past century. While some segments of society are unbelievably wealthy, a growing number are dehumanized by a grinding poverty hard for us to imagine. More than one half of Calcutta’s ten million people live in ghettos. Close to one quarter of the world’s population is undernourished.

Ron Sider, Tom Sine, David McKenna and others have pointed out that a whole gospel that takes into account the issues of justice and poverty must be at the head of the church’s agenda in the future if it wishes to speak with credibility to the world and its needs.


One characteristic of the modern world is the explosion of technology related to the storage, processing and dissemination of information. North American middle class families with their hi-fi sets can listen to more classical music than Bach or Beethoven, who were dependent upon live performances. Indian villagers with their radios know more about world events as they occur than did our grandparents.

For good and for evil, printed pages, audio tapes, video cassettes, television, satellites and computers are revolutionizing the way people spread ideas. The Iranian revolution was precipitated by tapes of Khomeni’s messages recorded in Paris and copied and distributed through the underground in Iran. The growth of the church in China has been helped by Christian radio broadcasts beamed in from Hong Kong and the Philippines.

This media explosion is reflected in the rapid growth in {45} Christian literature, radio and television (see table 3). The media have been particularly effective in spreading information. They have been less effective in leading people to personal commitments to Christ and least effective in bringing converts together into assemblies of believers. Consequently we cannot look to media as the primary means of evangelism and missions, but must use it as one important means for building the church around the world.

Table 3

Media 1900 1985 2000
Christian Literature:
New Books per year 2,200 20,800 25,000
Periodicals 3,500 21,000 35,000
Bibles distributed 5,452,600 43,000,000 70,000,000
Christian Broadcasting:
Radio TV Station 0 1,580 4,000
Monthly audience
  for stations 0 370,000,000 600,000,000
  for programs 0 1,090,000,000 2,150,000,000
(Barrett 51)

In his teaching on the end times (Matt. 24-25), Jesus warned his disciples that they will be characterized by great difficulties and great opportunities. Wars, famines, persecutions, self-centeredness, and wickedness will increase (24:6-10, 15-22). The church itself will be wracked by false prophets leading people astray (24:11-12, 23-28, 25:41-46). At the same time the gospel will be preached in all the earth (24:14) and many in the church will minister to those in need (25:34-40).

In missions we must take both of these prophecies into account. On the one hand we must avoid an easy triumphalism, for then we will not be ready when persecutions and false teachings arise. On the other hand, we must realize that the church has grown most under difficult times and that the growing instability in the world provides us with opportunities to proclaim Christ’s gospel of redemption and peace to all who will listen.

We are ending an era of missions in which the church in North America carried out the work, and we are entering an {46} era in which we as a part of the church around the world must discern the times and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to a desperate world. This is also true for the Mennonite Brethren.


  • Arius, Mortimer “Centripetal Mission or Evangelism by Hospitality.” Missiology 10 (1982): 69-81.
  • Barrett, David B. “Status of Global Mission, 1985, in Context of 20th Century.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 9:1 (1985): 51.
  • ———. World-Class Cities and World Evangelization. Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1986.
  • Kroeker, Wally. “The Deadly Race” Direction 13 (January/April, 1984): 3-15.
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. “Can the West be Converted?” International Bulletin 11 (January, 1987): 2-7.
  • Pate, Larry D. “Asian Missions: Growth, Problems and Partnership.” Bridging Peoples 5 (Oct., 1986): 1-8.
  • Rose, Larry L. and C. Kirk Hadaway. An Urban World: Churches Face the Future. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1984.
Dr. Paul Hiebert—missionary, anthropologist, churchman, author, consultant—is professor at (Fuller) School of World Mission.

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